Utah faces new lawsuit over social media restrictions for minors. Here’s why.

“There’s no comparison to Utah’s expansive and almost complete government control on how Utahns access the internet,” a representative for the plaintiff told The Salt Lake Tribune.

(Bethany Baker/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP) Attorney General Sean Reyes speaks during a press conference following the announcement that Utah filed a lawsuit against TikTok at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023. The state faces a new lawsuit from a tech company group that alleges new social media restrictions for minors are unconstitutional.

Broad restrictions on how Utah minors use social media that were passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Spencer Cox earlier this year are being challenged in federal court.

NetChoice, representing and lobbying for a coalition of big tech companies, has filed a lawsuit seeking to block the regulations from going into effect next year. The Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and Divison of Consumer Protection Director Katherine Hass as defendants.

Utah politicians have said they expected a fight over the legislation.

The plaintiffs allege Utah’s social media regulations violate First Amendment protections for freedom of speech, the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and federal law.

While well-intentioned, NetChoice says Utah’s regulations unconstitutionally restrict the ability of minors and adults in the state to access content that otherwise would be legal.

“The Act restricts who can express themselves, what can be said, and when and how speech on covered websites can occur, down to the very hours of the day minors can use covered websites,” the lawsuit reads. “The First Amendment, reinforced by decades of precedent, allows none of this.”

NetChoice v Reyes official complaint by The Salt Lake Tribune on Scribd

The governor has made protecting children from the harms of social media one of his signature issues, pointing to studies that show social media may be a contributing factor to an increase in depression and suicide among youth.

“This is something that is killing our kids,” Cox said in a March news conference.

Chris Marchese, director of the NetChoice Litigation Center, says lawmakers are right to be concerned about those issues, but they can’t run roughshod over constitutional protections.

“No social media law is as overburdensome and restrictive as this,” Marchese said. “There’s no comparison to Utah’s expansive and almost complete government control on how Utahns access the internet.”

Two pieces of legislation, SB152 and HB311, comprise the Utah Social Media Regulation Act. The new laws regulate when and how children in Utah can use some social media platforms.

Starting on Mach 1, 2024, parents must give permission for a minor to open a social media account and platforms must verify the age of all users to open or maintain an account. There also is a state-mandated curfew on social media for minors, with restricted use between 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m., unless authorized by a parent.

“The State of Utah is reviewing the lawsuit but remains intently focused on the goal of this legislation: Protecting young people from negative and harmful effects of social media use,” the attorney general’s office said in a statement Monday evening.

Representatives for the Division of Consumer Protection did not immediately respond to a request to comment on the lawsuit Monday morning. The governor’s office declined to comment, citing active litigation.

“We may have to go to the Supreme Court to prove it”

Arkansas lawmakers approved a law requiring children under 18 to get parental permission before they can access most social media platforms. NetChoice challenged Arkansas in court, and in August a federal judge blocked the law, ruling it likely unconstitutional.

Monday’s lawsuit claims Utah’s age-verification rule may force websites to determine the identity of users because of the stiff financial penalties for noncompliance — social media companies can be fined $2,500 per violation.

“It may not be enough to simply verify the age of whatever person may be listed on a form of identification (even if they have such a record) because that record may not accurately reflect who the individual actually is,” the suit reads.

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks before signing two social media regulation bills during a ceremony at the Capitol building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 23, 2023. Cox signed a pair of measures that aim to limit when and where children can use social media and stop companies from luring kids to the sites. (Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

Those steep penalties may cause social media companies to exercise extreme caution regarding the parental consent part of the law and require parents to divulge their, and their children’s identities, to establish a clear relationship with a minor.

Utah’s regulations apply to any social media platform with at least five million users. Under that threshold, not all social media platforms are subject to the restrictions. For instance, X, Facebook, and Instagram would be covered, but smaller apps like Bluesky, Gab, and Truth Social would not. NetChoice argues the law’s definition of what constitutes a social media platform is so vague that websites that display similar content have to play by different rules.

The lawsuit also argues several other parts of Utah’s social media law are unconstitutional: The curfew for minors during nighttime hours prevents them from accessing news, communicating with peers or even watching homework help videos for a third of the day and the ban on collecting personal information from minors defeats mechanisms many platforms use to determine whether the content is age-appropriate and to restrict interactions between adults and children.

One element that is unique to Utah is a ban on social media platforms implementing features that are “addictive” to minors. Websites, according to the new law, are required to conduct quarterly audits to detect features that might result in an addiction by a minor.

NetChoice says the penalties for violating this part of the law could be ruinous for companies with millions of dollars in fines. Additionally, the statute allows private citizens to file suit if a company implements an “addictive” feature. If that lawsuit comes from a minor under 16, the social media company is presumed to be at fault unless it can prove otherwise.

Monday’s legal challenge comes as no surprise to Beehive State politicians. Cox and legislators have repeatedly said the effort would likely result in a lawsuit. The governor included nearly $1 million to defend the law in court as part of his budget proposal for next year.

“Let’s keep making up ways this can’t work,” Cox said during a September press conference. “When it’s really simple, it can work, and we may have to go to the Supreme Court to prove it.”

Lawmakers may make some changes to the regulations during the upcoming legislative session, which begins in January. Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, the author of this year’s Senate bill, believes social media should be considered as dangerous as pornography and drugs.

“In Utah, we care deeply about protecting youth in all areas,” McKell said in a statement provided to The Tribune. “We have robust alcohol and pornography laws, and drug education programs in schools. Social media needs to be added to this list. We need to treat social media as any other addictive and dangerous product.”

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, explained on Monday that the regulations were prompted by concern over concern about social media’s role in declining mental health among young people.

“Data shows that social media platforms are aggravating the mental health crisis, especially among young people,” Adams said in an email. “We in Utah are leading the fight against social media’s harmful impacts on the unsupervised industry while providing parents with more resources and tools.”

Shortly after the suit was filed Monday, a spokesperson for Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, issued a statement supporting of the legal action.

“Parents want to be involved in their teen’s online lives, and they need simple ways to oversee the many apps their teens use. However, U.S. states are passing a patchwork of laws requiring parental approval of some apps their teens use, but not all,” a Meta spokesperson said. “There’s a better way. Parents should approve their teen’s app downloads in one place, and we support federal legislation that requires app stores to get parents’ approval whenever their teens under 16 download apps.”